I. High school went like this: "You Jewed me" and "Stop acting like a bagel." I tried desperately to hide the fact that I was offended.
It was my brother who first told me anti-Semitism wasn't real. He said this in the presence of my mother, whose blue contacts made her icepick pupils disappear. It wasn't real, yet we were growing up in a passing household, where we were taught to respell our last name and wear nativity sweaters on Chanukah.
My grandfather and I are only fifteen years away from each other. I will get to meet him at pizza parlor, having been denied the opportunity to ever know him. My mom just couldn't deal with a man fighting so hard to be a Jew, to hold his Jewish identity so tightly, when she was eager to bleach it down the sink.
And when I do see him, we will cry in the lobby of the diner. He will talk about how we both survived a different kind of a war, and how we both love olives.
Years later, I'll look out in the audience at my niece's Bat Mitzvah and see a boy wearing a tie with dollar signs on it. He'll sit smirking with his arms crossed, proud of how clever he dressed for the occasion.
I know anti-Semitism is still real.
He marches because he is told. The guns are drawn and the Jews, frostbitten and wobbly from hunger, march hundreds of miles towards another train, another deportation, in cars designed for cattle.
Many along the way fall over from Typhus. The SS shoot them immediately. He is twenty years old and must walk past the piled-high decay. He always carries a ration of moldy bread; teal cauliflower buds grow over the crust and become his secret penicillin.
The fleas, all whirring in unison, sound just like the engine of the train that carried him here.
He is twenty years old and the leftover arrogance of boyhood is still there. He secretly smiles over his body's ability to keep up, to follow orders from the Nazis, to merely exist to prove this master plan wrong.
The purple tufts of his feet have not betrayed him—yet. And his command of German, learned in his youth in Lithuania, allows him to understand the guards in a way that others may not. Sometimes they'll look at him from beneath their stiff hats and seethe. He'll be lashed on his calf for staring back at them a second too long. The broken blood vessel will remain a permanent fixture in his life. The wound will re-open again and again in the middle of most nights.
His parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents were gassed.
His sisters, both older, are in a different camp. He will see them after the war, find their names on a message board by happenstance. They were looking for him, too. They needed to know the stories of what happened to him. There's never a doubt in their mind that he isn't alive. They will reunite and they will sob all night over this familial destiny. The three of them combined do not weigh more than 130 pounds.
This he won’t know yet.
Šiauliai. In Yiddish, the town of his boyhood was pronounced Shavel. Like Shovel. Like what the Jews in that town - 8,000 in 1941 – will be buried with after the invasion, the shetl, the yellow stars, the curfews. Long before their collarbones revealed right angles, before the fat started to hang off them like a drape, before crowds of families were forced to live together and fight over scraps of potatoes and bread.
Before the plumbing broke and human shit backed up into the streets.
And then there's the robbery, the hacking and the forging and the emptying and the transferring and the looting and the selling.
I know you've read about these scenes in a history book before. How it's not violent at first. How the Germans just showed up to get a feel for the area. How they came in waving on the tanks. Maybe a group of children gathered around to ask them how their equipment worked. Maybe the guards were more than happy to show them.
But by then, it's already happening.
My mother is bleaching her hair again. It’s three weeks to the date when the darkness grows in. In the quest to be blonde, the days go like this: we wake up to the smell of cooked hair, this boundless stink we can’t get away from. Sometimes my mother pours 7-up in the tangy, periwinkle sulfur to thin it out, and the mixture grows alive and hisses, its guts erupting like an unwatched pot.
Once stirred, she needs to transfer the chemicals to her scalp as quickly as possible before it spoils. She is all elbows and sectioning combs and three-length mirrors. The half-platinum, half-brunette strands look melted and wet, as if they were thawing something open, dissolving in another to become another. “Blonde attracts light. It’s for the men to stare.”
My mother is dividing her hair in thirds, proud to catch a patch that’s dark like ink, anything that says she’s a Jew. Years later, I will learn in biology that the more dark spots there are on a frog, the more poisonous it is. She sets the timer for twenty minutes. I wait on the bathroom floor as her scalp sips the solvent slowly. I am still a child, steeped in the scent of her, the sourness of it all, this oddly peroxide version, the mother I will come to know. My childhood will consist of this day – one, long strand of trophy blonde, a scalp so blistered and bloodshot, it’s the redness of furnace doors or like the eyes of wolves. This mixture sits still in our lungs. It stains and lifts and peels the surface of things. The tip of that cloudy, plastic bottle is the eraser on the darkest of pencils.
For the remainder of my childhood, my mother will use bleach to taunt me, to encourage me, to entice me to start over with her. And it’s here I begin to see my body as in the way, as shunned to the basement of my mother’s flesh, the skeleton underneath the corpse she dyed over and poached to the bone. I will come to see myself as a biological mistake, a shadow that stalks and insults my mother constantly, a remnant of the baby books I once saw of her now hidden. Now hiding. And I will spend the remainder of my childhood on the run—between bottle blonde and brunette—unsure of whose ghost I’m negotiating.
“You’re so pretty," he said, "but you’re a Jew.”
We were sitting in a metal gazebo. I’d worn my hair straight that night because he told me I was only attractive when I tried.
I tried to try.
The year I left home, I walked right into the arms of an anti-Semite. I was his kinda-sorta girl, a blowup doll on the bed.
Straight hair became my religion. I ironed it so much that it broke. I had it thinned at the salon so that it’d be the see-through kind. I finally ordered the blue contacts; I wanted to see the world through shiksa-like eyes.
He just wouldn’t be seen in public with me otherwise, or at a decent hour, looking a bit too Jewish.
He’d point to fancy apartments where the rich Jewish girls from the East Coast lived, the ones who had “Daddy on tap,” and ask me why I didn’t live there.
My father and I barely spoke.
And at 2 a.m., closing time was “Bar Mitzvah” time. He’d call me drunk and ask me questions like, “Why aren’t you an accounting major like the rest of ‘em?”
I wanted him to be shocked by the meanness, almost spooked at his ability to be this cruel, but how I understand the world now, at 30, is never how abusive relationships work.
It wasn’t until I sat on the toilet Sophomore year of college and the pulpy, gray shavings of a baby fell out of me did I understand that my body was no longer any of his business. And as the toilet rose to the top with blood, I may very well have flushed a part of myself to safety (What were the options? Have it and send him a Bar/Bat Mitzvah card thirteen years later? Be with a man who teaches a child to hate a part of themself that they can't do anything about? Be with a man who teaches a child to hate me for giving them the part of themself that they can't do anything about?).
The comments and the miscarriage sat on my shelf collecting dust for years. I continued to talk to him long after he fucked a fourteen year old girl in my bed. It wasn’t until he said that the only reason I was mad at him was because he had sex with me over and over again and refused to marry me (because that’s the only reason Jewish girls go to college) that I finally came to hate him for good.
Two month ago, I found his wedding registry online.
I saw that he was married to a woman with a seemingly Jewish-sounding last name on last year on August 4. August 4, 1944, a brown-eyed Anne Frank wrote about the trainloads of Jews, too. Maybe she heard my grandfather whir by. Maybe the train shook the bookcases in front of the annex alive. Maybe when typhus got hold of her a year later, it was she who my aunts and great-grandmother tripped over on the way to the woods.
The last time I see my mother is on paper. She will empty everything I have—$19,600-the last of my inheritance, money she made me sign over to her the year I turned fifteen, the month I meet my husband. She sends two separate payments to a P.O. box in Pennsylvania. I don’t have a job or a lamp or a place to live. I must now repay my student loans before I am able to. In the computer, I look responsible, diligent, and wealthy. To the person processing these payments, I am not a daughter with an expiration date.
If you want to hurt someone, hit them in their pockets. This is the mantra my mother repeated weekly to me at the grocery store when I was twelve, when she proudly overwrote checks in my father’s name and pocketed the cash. She’d wink at me as if the stealing turned her on. I don’t think about money, ever, but in an instant, it has become everything to me. I knew about the balance, that it was there, but my mother beat me to the leftovers, and sold me to a dozen 1-800 numbers. She made sure someone would always be taking from me. I startle easily when the phone rings. At any given moment, I am a breakfast waitress, a night cashier, a weekend sales associate.
I am denied every apartment I try to rent.
She thinks I won’t notice. She refuses to lose me to a man. She robs me for everything I am worth, ransacks my future, and puts worry in its place. She tries to punish me in every way possible for leaving her. For years, I stand in the intersection of Dead End and Deaf Child At Play.
When I don’t marry a doctor or a stock broker, someone with enough money to take care of me, to her, it means I just didn’t listen. Sometimes I believe it was the fact that I married a Jew at all that pissed her off for good. Maybe she wanted me to help her dilute the family from this point forward.
My relationship suffers. My dreams of becoming an English teacher don’t happen. I am now a secretary in partially-ruined pantyhose, the kind that rushes out of elevators and makes friends at the dry cleaners. I spend this period of my life filing away things I never fully understand. That year, bright white cancer cells stomp all over my cervix, and, at twenty-two, I am a fragment of something that used to be young.
The week I sit for my oral defense, my mother deletes my email account, along with all of the advice my Professors gave me in order to graduate. In exchange for getting the internet, she set up all the passwords. She probably knew she’d need them one day.
The day before the exam, my phone is not only turned off, but the number is permanently erased from the grid. She begins processing the paperwork to take me off my father’s health insurance before the semester is over. Months earlier, she’ll meet with more student loan officers, make more phone calls to tellers, download more forms to take her name off anything she once co-signed for when I was younger.
Her responsibility to me is untraceable.
She sends me old pieces of mail with my social security number written all over the envelopes. That week, I am mugged before class. $8,000 is charged unknowingly on credit cards opened in my name. I never quite know for sure know who the robber is.
I promise myself I’ll write my way back to $19,600, that I will stop making other people look good, that I will matter beyond fetching coffee for overweight men.
I never do.
I am running out of time.
My grandfather turned 91 in July, and his hair and teeth and mind and hearing are gone. Six months ago, doctors fused his hip together with a rod and hundreds of pins. We pray for it to take.
The last time I saw him—right after my daughter was born—he was licking his lips and yelling, “Water! Water! Please water!” He is reliving the last years of his life through the lens of the death camps. He is thinking back through the Holocaust, where the hissing of his hearing aid will mimic the buzzing sountrack of the ghetto, the eager fleas awaiting. My grandfather will spend the remainder of his days not wanting to hear one more thing.
I want to tell him that I, too, have known hate and the language of begging, the bottomless barrel of convincing, how hungry that makes you after awhile. I know what it’s like to have to put yourself back together after the brokenness, how the pieces never quite fit so cleanly.
The only thing I tell my students about 1941 is that it was the year Virginia Woolf itched to die, and that she walked into the river until the water reached her neck, choking down a kind of grief that could no longer float her. This, too, you can read about in a book. How what floats you can also kill you.
I always turn off the Shoah interview when my grandfather, dressed in an ocean blue v-neck and newsboy cap, says in heavy English, “Stories. So, so many terrible stories.”
I, too, am looking for my siblings.
Two boys, now men, both wearing glasses and turtlenecks and dark hair. One a bit nicer than the other.
I take the train into the city an hour and a half each way and everyday. I scan the rows of faces. It feels like the same database I dug through at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. when, after the estrangement with my parents, I was desperate for a new kind of family.
I, too, have the guilt of my grandfather. I wonder how we’re really related.
I understand why my brothers won’t speak to me, how wrapped up in money and threats and fear it all must be.
I know we survived our mother together. I know how scary it is to be alone. I am so sorry I left them behind.
And I'll think of my aunts looking for the new version of my grandfather, the beaten up 23 year old, and I'll ask myself, What happened to them?
Sometimes I feel my brothers take a seat beside me. Sometimes the hope of a reunion is the only thing that gets me through the commute. There’s still this hope that the train will carry all of us forward to a different, more lived, and loving place.
Until then, I'll be here. I'm not getting off just yet.
Andie Karras is an Adjunct Instructor of English in Chicago. Her work has previously been featured on The Nervous Breakdown.
[Image by Jim Cooke]